The Future of Democracy?

Fresno Bee, March 7, 2021

Democracy appears to be in decline around the world. Freedom House, a think tank founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, recently warned of an ongoing “recession” of democracy. China, Russia, and countries in the Middle East remain unfree. Major democracies such as India and the United States have stumbled. Freedom House claims that when exemplary democracies falter, anti-democratic forces are emboldened.

Authoritarianism was on the rise prior to COVID-19. Threats to freedom of the press predate the pandemic. Religious liberty and other human rights have never existed in some places. But the pandemic created new opportunities for disinformation and democratic dysfunction.

There was some good news. Across the world, protesters clamored for equality and human rights. Unfortunately, these protests were often met with governmental repression.

And, as we’ve seen in the U.S., there is growing distrust. Recent opinion polls paint a worrying picture. An Associated Press poll concluded that nearly half of Americans think our democracy is not working well. Such conclusions reflect our polarization. That poll concluded that 75% of Democrats think the country is on the right track, while almost 80% of Republicans think it is not. A related AP poll found that 65% of Republicans do not believe that Joe Biden’s election was legitimate.

These differences of opinion are troubling. Democracy depends upon trust and common ground.

But let’s not be surprised. History shows that democracy is rare, unstable, and imperfect.

The Roman republic lasted about 500 years. The Athenian democracy lasted about 200. And ancient “democracies” were not all that democratic. Slavery was allowed and women were subordinated. Athens and Rome were also aggressive colonizers. And we should not forget that the Athenian assembly voted to execute Socrates.

This is one of the reasons that Plato distrusted democracy. He thought it was foolish to put the uneducated masses in charge. Plato worried that liberty would be abused. He warned that the masses would fall for the seductive lies of a tyrant. He described democracy as a ship of fools, where the drunken passengers stage a mutiny and throw the expert navigators overboard.

Modern democracies have, of course, made improvements and learned from ancient failures. We have institutionalized human rights that protect freedom of religion, speech, and the press. Socrates would not be sentenced to death in the United States. We have also abolished slavery and advanced women’s suffrage.

Modern innovations may help to stabilize and preserve democracy. But challenges and opportunities remain.

An important question is who is included among “we, the people.” Should there be voting rights for people in prison or even non-citizens? Some states allow felons and ex-cons to vote. Others do not. In the U.S. we link voting to citizenship. But in New Zealand some permanent residents can vote.

We can also ask about the size, stability, and longevity of democratic nations. The United States did not always include 50 states. Could more be added or some allowed to secede? The Constitution is not written in stone. Should it be amended in ways that make it more responsive to the will of the people?

We should also consider the role of global institutions and international law. Should we seek a more global democracy that involves trans-national unions? Or does democracy require small, local, and decentralized communities?

In a polarized era, rational conversations about these things are difficult. It seems increasingly unlikely that we will be able to talk reasonably about all of this. This may be our undoing.

A significant question is how peaceful and reasonable we expect democracy to be. Some philosophers dream of “deliberative democracy” in which rational people engage in sincere and civil debate. But democracy is also a field of conflict and struggle, what scholars call “agonistic democracy.” In the United States, our democracy has become much more agonistic of late. This damages civic institutions. But “people power” may in fact be more like anarchy than law and order.

As we consider the future of democracy, we should remember that democracies have not always existed. Irrationality, self-interest, and conflict are part of the human condition. Authoritarians are waiting to exploit those weakness. And without rational consensus about shared values, democracies will continue to fail.

Susan B. Anthony and The Revolution

President Trump pardoned Susan B. Anthony for the crime of voting, commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Historians have argued that Anthony would have rejected the pardon. She was more interested in voting rights, sex education, and social justice than in the pomp of a presidential pardon.

Anthony is closer in spirit to AOC than to the GOP. She demanded respect for women. She defended voting rights. She practiced civil disobedience. And she had unconventional views of religion.

Anthony was not simply the sweet little old lady we see posing politely in sepia-toned photos. She was a revolutionary and a radical.

Susan B. Anthony

The newspaper she published was called “The Revolution.” Its first issue, from 1868, stated that it would focus on equality for women as well as a revolution in society and in religion. With regard to religion, it advocated for “deeper thought.” It called for “science not superstition,” and “facts not fiction.”

Like Thoreau, she broke the law to make her case. When she was arrested for voting in 1872, Anthony claimed the law punishing her was unjust. She vowed to never pay the fine. She declared in court, “I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old revolutionary maxim, that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

The motto was a favorite of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. That revolutionary idea places God on the side of liberation. This theology motivated those who called for the abolition of slavery. In fact, Anthony began her career an abolitionist. Her calls for social justice and equality for women continued on the theological path of the anti-slavery movement.

Religious reform was central to the movement for women’s equality. As we reconsider flags and monuments today, it is worth recalling how early suffragettes symbolically rewrote the Declaration of Independence. At the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, they proclaimed, “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” To support the idea that men and women were equal, a radical religious claim was introduced: “That woman is man’s equal, was intended to be so by the Creator.”

Anthony’s friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton went so far as to revise the Bible. The “Woman’s Bible” began by declaring that Christianity falsely teaches that “woman was made after man, of man, and for man, an inferior being, subject to man.”

As might be predicted, this effort at religious revolution provoked a backlash in the movement. And although Anthony did not participate in creating the Woman’s Bible, she defended Stanton’s effort. Anthony viewed the Bible merely as a historical document. She said “I think women have just as good a right to interpret and twist the Bible to their own advantage as men always have twisted and turned it to theirs.”

Anthony also connected the suffrage movement to broader movements for social justice. She advocated for labor rights, for fair pay, and for a living wage for women. She pointed out hypocrisy in the lofty moral language of the Founding Fathers, while the U.S. was “founded upon the blood and bones of half a million beings, bought and sold as chattels in the market.”

Despite her work as an abolitionist and her calls for social revolution, Anthony’s work has been criticized by those who think she was not radical enough. Anthony was not as progressive on racial issues as she might have been. She was friendly with Frederick Douglass — who publicly advocated for women’s suffrage. But Angela Davis complains that Anthony “pushed Douglass aside for the sake of recruiting Southern women into the movement for woman’s suffrage.”

This reminds us that no one is perfect. History will judge our failures. But we must do the best we can.

It helps to have the kind of courage, tenacity, and faith of someone like Susan B. Anthony. She understood that the world won’t change unless we demand that it change. She inspires us to think critically about the social and religious conventions of the day. And she reminds us to look beyond petty politics and consider whether God is on the side of oppression or liberation.

Voting is a leap of faith

Voting is a little like a leap of faith

Fresno Bee, November 5, 2016


Your vote does not count for much. In the U.S., there are about 150 million registered voters. You are only one among 18 million registered California voters. But there are good reasons to vote anyway. Voting allows you to express your values and participate in civic life.

Ron Hirschbein, a philosopher at Chico State, wrote a book in the 1990s, “Voting Rites,” that considers the metaphysics of voting. I spoke with him the other day. Hirschbein says, “The cruel mathematics of mass society destroys the narcissistic belief that your vote matters.”

The large numbers involved make it unlikely that your vote will change the world in your favor. If you view your vote as an instrument serving your self-interest, then voting is a waste of time.

But voting is not merely an instrumental activity. It is also a meaningful social ritual. Voting has symbolic and expressive value. It is a participatory social act. This year you can help elect the first female president or a billionaire outsider. You can also write in “none of the above.”

Your vote is meaningful to you, even if it does very little to change the aggregate vote count. It is an expression of your hopes and your values. And it matters to you, even if your vote is merely a drop in the bucket.

audienceConsider this analogy. After a concert, people applaud. Your claps only make a miniscule contribution. No one would miss your clapping if you chose not to applaud. But you would miss out on the opportunity to participate in the process. Applauding is a symbolic and expressive gesture, done in solidarity with the audience and in support of the musicians.

Voting is similar. We demonstrate solidarity with other citizens by voting. And we express a kind of faith in the political show.

Admittedly, there are good reasons to be skeptical of all of this. Citizen solidarity may seem absurd in a divided nation. Many people fear that the political show is a rigged carnival game. Monolithic parties, political dynasties, insider trading, gerrymandering and big money all serve to undermine our faith in democracy.

To vote is to say, “Despite all of this, I assert my constitutional right to participate in self-governance.” This is an expressive act and a leap of faith.

Faith – religious, civic or otherwise – is belief in the absence of evidence. In social contexts, faith performs an important conjuring act. Political societies only exist so long as citizens believe in them. Teams, social clubs, businesses, and nations fall apart when we lose faith.

Maybe we are heading in that direction. In 2012, just over half of eligible voters voted. U.S. voter turnout rates trail behind the rest of the world. Maybe Americans are simply giving up on the charade, refusing to applaud this tired old show.

Social life is an elaborate ritual that requires willingness to play along. Ghosts and witches are fantasy, but we carve our jack-o-lanterns anyway. It’s all phony. But when we play along, Halloween exists.


Weddings, funerals and graduations are games and shows that require voluntary suspension of disbelief. The ceremonies are formulaic and often lack depth. But we play along, enjoying the process and the result.

It may seem disenchanting to admit all of this, but grown-ups know that social rituals involve make-believe. Acknowledging this creates deeper understanding of social life and a more realistic assessment of our place within the social universe.

No individual matters all that much to history or society. But we create the shared social world by our individual deeds and commitments. Understanding this gives us the freedom to invest our spiritual energy wisely and appropriately.

This is ultimately a question of existential philosophy. You truly are a grain of sand. But so what? The beach is beautiful, and we find meaning in participating in things that are larger than ourselves.

Democracy is created by the faith of individuals who vote and thereby participate in the life of the country. One vote does not matter in a country of hundreds of millions. But if that one vote is yours, it matters to you. And democracy only exists when we believe that despite evidence to the contrary, our votes really do matter.

Read more here:

Democracy and Voting

Real work of democracy begins after voting

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-11-03

Voting is a central part of self-government. Blood and tears have been shed in the struggle for voting rights. But voting is an imperfect indication of the will of “we, the people.” And voting is only a small part of political life.

Our system of voting creates problems. The biggest problem is the disparate weight of individual votes from state to state. As a result of the way that Electoral College votes are allocated, the votes of citizens in small states are worth more than the votes of citizens in big states. An individual vote in Wyoming has nearly four times the weight of a vote in California.

The Electoral College also creates the phenomena of swing states — where only a few states are the focus of presidential politicking. The Electoral College system combines with the “winner-takes-all” procedure to produce strange possible outcomes: candidates can be elected with less than 50% of the popular vote. This problem is exacerbated when third party candidates play the spoiler. Game theory shows that when there are more than two choices, less favored candidates can be elected.

In order to prevent such outcomes, we might prefer our two-party system. But what happens when you don’t like either of the two major party candidates? Those who are unhappy with the two main candidates may stay away from the polls. Others may vote in other races that matter, while leaving parts of the ballot blank. By abstaining, these voters may intend to vote “none of the above.” But our system is not set up to register a “none of the above” vote. Abstaining has no impact on the outcome of an election.

Henry David Thoreau explained, in “Civil Disobedience”: “All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it.” Some voters think like strategic gamers, perhaps by voting against one candidate, rather than voting in favor of another. But in our system, in order to vote against a candidate, we also have to vote in favor of another — even if we are not in favor of him or her.

Likewise, when voting on a proposition, we are asked to say “yes” or “no.” But life is more complicated than that. Our lives are not best described in bivalent decisions. In ordinary life, we rank a variety of things in multiple ways as we deliberate about our choices.

Decision-making in ordinary life is also a deeply social process. We talk things over. We listen to each other. We compromise and negotiate. And we aim at a consensus that is satisfactory to everyone involved. But voting is not like that. There is no talking or negotiating in the silence of the voting booth. We do not have to explain or justify our votes to anyone. The process is eerily un-social.

And yet, one reason we vote is that we like to participate in social life. Even though we know our votes don’t count for much, we like to be able to say that we voted. A sort of solidarity develops from voting. We like to wear our little “I voted” stickers throughout Election Day. We smile at our fellow citizens — even those in the other party — and celebrate our shared citizenship.

Voting is only a small part of political life, which also includes talking things over and taking action. We should vote. But we should also explain, argue, and act. Thoreau explained, “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it.”

The act of voting occurs in a mere moment of time — as a pause from the tumult of political life. We mark our ballots — in secret and in silence — and then head home to watch the returns, enjoying the political game as a spectator sport.

Sometimes we forget that political life involves more than punching a ballot and spectating on the couch. We also need to exchange ideas and argue about the issues of the day. In a sense, the real work of democracy occurs after the voting is over, as we wrestle with the implications of the election, talk things over and begin arguing again.